Table grapes grow up

Dave Wilkins/Capital Press Vineyard manager John Davis displays red seedless grapes harvested Sept. 10 near Fruitland, Idaho.

Acreage nearly doubles; growers sell more of their harvest to retail grocers

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

Idaho grapes may soon be coming to a table near you.

Acreage is on the increase, and growers are starting to move more of their product through wholesale brokers. The result is that more Idaho grapes are ending up in the produce section of major grocery chains, industry representatives said.

"We are now able to go to the large retailers. It's to the point that we can knock on the large retailer doors and get a reliable market for our growers," said Jonathan Demcak, who has a small vineyard near Homedale, Idaho.

Demcak is also chairman of the marketing committee for the Snake River Table Grape Growers Association, formerly known as the Idaho Table Grape Growers Association.

The group recently changed its name to reflect a wider membership which includes producers in other growing regions such as Utah, southeastern Washington and Eastern Oregon.

In the past, association members have relied mostly on direct sales to local restaurants, farmers' markets and fruit stands.

In 2009, growers started shipping to regional retail stores including WinCo and Super M stores.

"Both of them want us back," Demcak said.

Other major grocery chains including Wal-Mart and Albertsons are also interested, he said.

Table grape acreage in Idaho has probably doubled in the past two years to around 800 acres, Demcak said.

The industry will probably never rival California's in terms of size. But growers here believe they may have an edge when it comes to quality.

Idaho grapes are hand picked, packed in the field and chilled no more than a few weeks before being shipped. There's no long-term storage.

The dominant variety, a red seedless grape called Alborz, is a sweet morsel with "a nice crunch to it," said Lary Nielsen, a grower from Parma, Idaho.

Growing grapes in Idaho

isn't for the faint of heart. The cold climate poses significant risk.

Nielsen's crop will be short this year because of a severe spring frost.

"It took some of our plants clear down to the ground," he said. "We had to retrain them, and those plants aren't producing this year."

Low temperatures above the freezing level can actually help grapes by giving them color and setting sugar, said John Davis, vineyard manager for M&D Farms near Fruitland, Idaho.

For that reason, Idaho grapes excel in color, flavor and texture, he said.

The hardest lesson that Idaho grape growers have had to learn is where to plant their vineyards, Davis said.

Vineyards planted on flat, low-lying ground have been frozen out.

"It's been a huge learning experience," he said.

Anyone interested in planting table grapes in Idaho needs to collect a year's worth of temperature data before planting, Davis said.

"Every site has got to be evaluated before you plant a grape," he said.

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